Thursday, November 30, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

As we know, by 1980 STAR WARS was already a pop culture phenomenon and a merchandising juggernaut. It had even been rereleased once, with the subtitle "Episode IV: A New Hope". George Lucas made enough money to effectively finance the sequels himself (though Fox would end up throwing in completion funds for this entry when it went over budget), and the question became whether the sequel would be anywhere near as impressive. The standard was still for a sequel to be a reprise of the original with just enough variation to qualify as a new movie, and though there were notable exceptions already, it must have seemed just as probable that the next STAR WARS would be closer to JAWS 2 than THE GODFATHER PART II. But the creative team behind THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK- which included Lucas (acting as story writer, executive producer and general showrunner), director Irvin Kershner, and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett (a notable science fiction author who died shortly after completion of an early draft)- treated the film not as a retread but as the second act in a trilogy, working from ideas Lucas had sketched out years ago to create a challenging, complex film that stands out as the most popular example of a sequel that's better than the original. Bringing nuance and shades of grey to a black-and-white space opera, the film may just be the finest FLASH GORDON chapter ever made.

We open some years after the destruction of the Death Star at the end of A NEW HOPE. Despite their initial victory, the Rebels are on the run from rebounding Imperial forces, and have hidden out on the remote ice world of Hoth. Luke Skywalker, after falling afoul of a hideous ice monster, has a vision of his departed mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, who tells him to go to the Dagobah system and seek instruction from the ancient Jedi Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Darth Vader has been leading the Imperial fleet on a hunt for the Rebels which seems specifically to be a hunt for Skywalker, and they soon discover the hidden base. An Imperial assault headed by giant metallic snow walkers forces the Rebels to evacuate, and Luke heads to Dagobah with R2-D2 while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3P0 try to flee the system in the Millennium Falcon. Unfortunately, the ship's hyperdrive is on the blink, limiting its ability to go anywhere, and Han and company must dodge asteroids, TIE fighters, space monsters and bounty hunters in their quest for safety. Meanwhile, Luke meets the eccentric alien creature Yoda (a particularly well-articulated puppet voiced by Frank Oz) and begins to learn more about the nature of the Force.

Easily the darkest chapter in the original trilogy (its status as regards the entire series is more debatable), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK basically takes the "flight to safety" portion of your average serial and makes it almost the entire feature. The action is dominated by Han and his friends trying to escape the Empire's attentions, and as such the group of characters seldom acts because they're too busy being acted upon. Contrasting this is Luke's more proactive attempt to become a Jedi, something he decided upon in the first movie, but even then he finds himself influenced by a larger destiny. Buffeted about by fate, the characters nonetheless find some time for internal growth. Han and Leia begin a classically antagonistic romance, while Han wrestles with the questions of responsibility he again began facing in the last episode (he has decided to leave the Rebels at the start, still having a debt to his boss Jabba the Hutt, but is forced to stay to rescue Luke from freezing to death in the open and later becomes wrapped up in the evacuation effort.) When Luke faces Darth Vader in the depths of Cloud City, the villain acts as a tempter, trying to defeat Luke in combat and/or turn him to the Dark Side, finally letting slip a particularly earth-shattering piece of information as an extra lure. Chances are you know what it is.

What really makes the film work, though, is balance. It's dark, but it's still pulpy and vaguely hopeful, the series of unfortunate events balanced by the quietly astonishing scenes wherein Yoda demonstrates the powers of the Force and its nature as a transcendental connection between all things. If the heroes can't win this round, they can at least endure and resist and, for the most part, escape. The choice of Kershner- who had taught Lucas at film school and had mostly made small, character-driven films- as director helps this fairly delicate mixture of old movie conventions and operatic drama and subtle character development. Kershner proves adept at both the big and small stuff, and this time around both really had to work.

Another neat trick the film accomplishes- and one that was instrumental in the series retaining the fan following it has today- is its expansion of the "universe" of STAR WARS. The first film, trying to get out a self-contained story in about two hours on limited budgetary resources, stuck to the basics. Young farmboy, backwater world, mysterious mentor, beautiful princess, lovable scoundrel, etc. We saw some strange creatures in a cantina, a bit of Jedi swordplay, and references to the Emperor and the Old Republic, but the film was focused on presenting a seemingly complete hero's journey. Now, with more money and an audience already hooked, things could open up. We see entirely new worlds, stranger creatures, the Emperor himself (played in the original version by an old woman, the eyes of a chimpanzee and the voice of Clive Revill, and yeah, in the long run just putting some makeup on Ian McDiarmid was probably the better choice), new ships and gadgets, life in a Rebel base, the altogether more perilous life on board an Imperial Star Destroyer, weird midget-pig men, and in the long run, enough to turn "Star Wars" into its own unique science fiction universe. We sci-fi fans love this stuff. We like good individual stories, but show us a vast and endless starscape and we'll fill in all the blanks. To an extent, the film has its own look; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (later a regular collaborator with David Cronenberg) emphasizes the grime and the wear and the overall detail of the world we're looking into, giving the film a vaguely realistic look. And again, there's balance. Despite the different look, and all the new stuff, it's all recognizably of a piece with what we saw in the first movie. It's the same universe, just another corner. Another superb John Williams score also helps hold things together while introducing new motifs, particularly the famous "Imperial March."

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK ensured that STAR WARS would end up being a genuine mythic saga, and a cultural touchstone for at least a generation. (It would also start an unfortunate "the darker the better" view of dramatic storytelling among science fiction aficionados, something for which we are still paying. But I didn't blame A NEW HOPE for killing the New Hollywood and I'm not gonna blame this one for anything either.) Moreover, it was and is a genuine masterpiece of science fiction cinema, proving the dramatic potential of one of its least-esteemed subgenres. Had the film somehow flopped, and the franchise ended there, it would still stand as a towering achievement. But it didn't end there, and though we've already covered the best entry, there's still plenty to chew on.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope

Another bit of nostalgia-inspired posting here (hey, I'm on vacation)- from Thanksgiving onwards there's a good portion of the holidays that in my childhood were effectively owned by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. If you've seen the STAR WARS movies and you know what "Spielbergian" means, you'll understand the grip these two had on American kiddom throughout the Eighties. Or maybe it's just that I first saw THE EWOK ADVENTURE around Thanksgiving. Anyway, for this reason, and because I've re-bought the original STAR WARS trilogy on DVD (the newest release containing the original, albeit un-remastered, theatrical versions of the films as well as their most recent revamps), I'm going to review the whole damn saga. Because of how I've been watching, I'll review them in release order, meaning that as someone who liked all six movies I'm going to start in the calm, easily defensible waters of the original trilogy and moving on to the more difficult realm of the prequels. But, of course, it all begins in 1977.

Do I even have to go into the story? Well, it's traditional, so okay. Some time back in a distant galaxy, a group of Rebels are at war with the evil Galactic Empire. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), a diplomat and Rebel sympathizer, is racing to her home planet of Alderaan with information on the Death Star, a giant battle station with the power to destroy planets. Her ship is attacked by an Imperial Star Destroyer, and she is captured by the evil Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones.) Fortunately, she's hidden the Death Star plans in her faithful droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and he, along with fellow automaton C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), hops in an escape pod onto the desert planet of Tatooine. There, the two droids are captured by scavengers and sold to a family of moisture farmers, one of which, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), stumbles upon a recording of Leia while fixing up R2. R2, still on a mission, runs off into the desert, and Luke and C-3P0 pursue him, meeting up with the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who turns out to be one of the fabled Jedi Knights, mystic guardians of peace and justice who were exterminated by the Empire. He works out that the droids must be taken to Alderaan, and the group charter a flight from smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who needs the money to pay off a debt to his crime boss. From this point, ah, screw it. Just rent the damn thing.

It's hard to imagine any film being as shockingly unheralded as STAR WARS must have been when it was released. The science fiction genre had, after the excitement of 2001 and PLANET OF THE APES, slipped into an unprofitable nihilistic rut, presenting mechanized dystopia after mechanized dystopia (for his part, Lucas contributed with 1971's THX-1138.) It may have been vaguely intellectual but it was getting old (compare SILENT RUNNING to SOYLENT GREEN to ROLLERBALL to LOGAN'S RUN and see for yourself.) The big action spectacles, meanwhile, were known for lavish setpieces and all-star casts and not really very much speed. STAR WARS was, and is, fast, sharp, and chirpy, drawing in equal parts from Akira Kurosawa's HIDDEN FORTRESS and the FLASH GORDON serials with a bit of WIZARD OF OZ on the side. We're at once confronted with a story of fairytale simplicity; there's a young hero, a beautiful princess all in white, a wise mentor, a villain so evil he wears black armor and lives on a station called the Death Star surrounded by stormtroopers whose armor gives them skull-like faces, a criminal who's cool and dangerous but you just know will be a good guy by the end, shiny robots, and a strangely endearing giant ape-creature. All presented with nary a hint of irony, in the middle of a decade choked with the stuff. In the end, it was probably a 50/50 chance that the audience would either burst into hysterical laughter or gasp with delight.

Viewed now, it's not flawless. After a fairly exciting opening there's a long stretch where, between the droids wandering in the desert and Luke wondering if he'll ever get off his miserable backwater planet, not a lot happens. It's necessary for the story and not unentertaining, but, even with the film overall being tightly edited, it lags a bit and is at odds with the sci-fi serial nature of the piece as a whole. Not that things don't pick up; the momentum of the film gradually builds over time, culminating in the brilliantly tense Death Star attack sequence (one of the best action sequences of all time, arguably.) Obviously, the characters are only rendered in the broadest of strokes, and the acting is similarly one-note; even Harrison Ford, praised as he is for bringing a bit of wit to the series, is really just doing a "charming scoundrel" turn better than most. Still, you can't knock what works.

The STAR WARS movies are more visual than most (at times it's been said that Lucas basically makes silent movies), and this is true in two ways. There's the spare, clean look of this particular movie, which favors clean compositions and a sparse color pallette (mostly blacks and whites and greys, with some yellow and other hues for sci-fi flavor.) This accentuates the simple fantasy feel, and coincidentally was probably a good idea given the film's reasonably mid-range budget. But in contrast to this is the cluttered, "lived-in" look of the Star Wars universe, something Lucas specifically asked for to give things a more authentic feel than most glitzy, shiny, and more fake-looking space movies. But there's quite a bit on the aural side, from John William's classical, sophisticated score to a range of unique and originally-produced sound effects which have become signatures for the series. (Everybody knows the lightsaber noise, right?) The special effects, of course, were innovative for their time, which may have contributed to the rebirth of the genre as much as the film's individual success by making specatcular visuals easier to realize on film.

STAR WARS- or rather its unanticipated success- is sometimes blamed for turning Hollywood away from the mature, thoughtful cinema of auteurs like Scorcese, Coppola, and Altman (RIP) and towards the summer blockbuster formula in which special effects prevailed over subtlety. I can't quite agree, because the unheralded freedom of the auteur era of the Seventies was the sort of golden age that was going to end sooner or later, and it was just a matter of the relatively inexperienced studio heads (most of whom came from other businesses) finding something- anything- that looked like a reliable formula. The exact influence of the film is hard to judge, but it was definitely something fresh and new, and the simple impression it made on children and teenagers who would go on to become filmmakers is unmistakable.

Anyway, it's a great movie. Sharp, fun and vaguely mythic, it's a first-rate entertainment, a visual feast, and possibly the best example we have of Joseph Campbell's fabled "monomyth". (That last bit isn't really an aesthetic merit, but it's still neat.) Not that I have to recommend it to anyone. Most of you have seen some incarnation. The newest DVD release has the original theatrical version presented basically as an extra, without anamorphic enhancement and not given the same degree of restoration; it sucks for folks with widescreen TVs, but I did find the grainier image makes for a weirdly "cinematic" experience, and I really just like having it available for historical purposes (not seeing any significant difference in quality between the two versions; they're basically the same film.) And I apologize for the run-on sentence back there. I love semicolons too much.

As the reviews roll out, I'll be looking a bit more at how the overall saga unfolds, but STAR WARS (aka A NEW HOPE) is the film that's the most self-contained. Made without any certainty of sequels or prequels, it's a bit of a microcosm, featuring a desperate struggle against oppression, captures, escapes, the passing of heroes and the redemption of a non-hero. We'll be seeing all this again.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 23, 2006

We Gather Together To Watch Cheesy Movies

One of my fonder memories from earlier Thanksgivings is the Comedy Central Turkey Day marathon, featuring 24+ hour marathons of one of the best comedy shows of all time, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. A brilliant variant on the defunct late night horror shows that used to play on local television, the show, for those who aren't familiar, first featured Joel Hodgson as Joel Robinson, a janitor shot into space by mad scientists and forced to watch bad movies, with the company of twin jokester robots Tom Servo (voiced first by Josh Weinstein, later Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu, later Bill Corbett). Throughout the movie, Joel/Mike and the 'bots make clever wisecracks. The show was unceremoniously canned by Comedy Central in '96 (it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, where it ran for three more years before being cancelled for good), but hopefully MSTies will keep the Turkey Day tradition alive. Here are some prime recommendations.

"POD PEOPLE"- The film, an odd Spanish monster movie with a heavy E.T. influence and a title that has nothing to do with anything, is just goofy and campy enough to be a good starter for non-fans. Some terrific host segments as well, especially Joel and the Bots' movie-inspired nonsense song. "It Stinks!"

"MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE"- Consistently rated as the worst film the boys have ever watched, which may well be true- it's a weird mix of boring and sleazy, shot on a silent camera with poorly dubbed-in dialogue and a strangely jazzy score. It's something about a family lost in the desert and an evil cultist and his giant-kneed friend. The episode also features part of "Hired!", a Chevrolet sales motivational short. "Every shot in this film looks like somebody's last known photograph."

"CAVE DWELLERS"- one of the ATOR movies, featuring Miles O' Keefe as a beefy warrior in a fantasy world which resembles Spain or possibly Italy. Some of the plot's absurdities (including a flight in an "improvised" glider) inspire choice rants, and there's a brilliant host segment in which our hosts recreate the opening credits by dressing up as the characters from the movie and basically gadding about in slow motion while synth music plays. You kinda have to see it.

"GODZILLA VS. MEGALON"- pick up the box set (Vol. 10) containing this one NOW (well, Friday), as it's been recalled over a rights dispute probably involving this movie. This is another one that's not too painful for the uninitiated- Godzilla is always fun- and the quipping actually makes for a better movie somehow.

"MONSTER A GO-GO"- The second-most-frequently-cited candidate for "worst movie they ever did", this slow, bizarre attempt at a monster movie is notable for its horrid production values (at one point, a phone ringing is conveyed by someone off-camera simply making a "brring" sound), plot points taking place entirely in narration, and a complete non-ending that goes to insane lengths to justify itself. This is for the die-hards.

"OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK"- Raul Julia stars in an almost entirely incoherent sci-fi thriller produced for public television. There's too much weirdness going on for it not to be funny.

"SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS"- a good one to get you in that holiday spirit. Santa is kidnapped by Martians who want to bring Christmas to Mars- that's pretty much all you need to know, but the host segments feature Crow T. Robot's timeless carol "Let's Have A Patrick Swayze Christmas".

"THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN"- A dark horse in the "worst film EVER" sweepstakes, this attempt at emulating the then-ultra-hep Batman TV show is a train wreck of awful humor and incoherent zaniness, redeemed only slightly by the abundant bikini girls. It's the kind of film that makes you realize how short-sighted people are when they proclaim the latest tepid movie they've seen as the worst film ever. We know better, for we have gazed into the abyss.

"SPACE MUTINY"- A very cheap attempt at space opera (so cheap that all the spaceship effects were lifted from the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA- strangely enough, the MST writers failed to notice this), this film is about something happening on a space liner with some telepathic women and an evil guy and I dunno. Really, see it for the endless railing kills, the decidedly old-looking love interest, and the cavalcade of brilliant action hero names for our ultra-beefy protagonist (I prefer "Big McLargeHuge").

"WILD REBELS"- Odd stab at the biker movie genre featuring a particularly ineffectual protagonist hired to infiltrate "Satan's Angels." There's an annoyingly catchy surf tune, ludicrously stereotyped bikers, and an attempt to rob a bank that has to have at least $10 in cash on hand. The commercial for "Wild Rebels Cereal" is also a highlight.

Rhino continues to put out sets as soon as they can get the rights to the movies mocked, and for the others, the guys at Best Brains have given their tacit approval to the MST3K Digital Archive Project, which offers bootleg DVDs of unreleased episodes. Episodes sometimes pop up on Youtube as well (perish the thought.) So enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

In Theaters: Casino Royale

The defining moment of CASINO ROYALE comes in the first post-credits action sequence. (I'm trying a Roger Ebert thing, can you tell?) James Bond (Daniel Craig) is pursuing a bombmaker through a construction site. His quarry, in a feat of acrobatics that has a name I can't be bothered to look up just now (apologies to its adherents), leaps through a small opening into the next room. Bond himself simply decides to break through the wall.

You wouldn't expect Pierce Brosnan- or Dalton, or Moore, or Lazenby, or really, even Connery to do that. While Ian Fleming's Bond was always a bit of a bruiser, a calloused, hardened man, the movies always emphasized Bond's suave, charismatic side. CASINO ROYALE was, from the start, an effort to get the franchise back to basics after the mixed reception of the more cartoonish DIE ANOTHER DAY (which is in my Netflix queue, so I'll weigh in on it sometime.) So, the yet-again-rebooted Bond now reflects more of his literary heritage, less superhuman spy than blunt object. It's a grittier, coarser Bond film, shedding some of the obligatory tropes and tweaking others, but not straying so far from tradition that it's not unmistakably a 007 escapade.

Personally, I have a passing acquaintance with James Bond's screen adventures (and have read precisely one of Fleming's stories. It was "Property of a Lady", for those concerned.) I have mostly liked the ones I've seen, but occasionally been tired by their length, and Kabuki-like formal insistence on obeying convention. So CASINO ROYALE hits a lot of the right buttons for me. It's leaner, more energetic, and more visceral as a result. It's not quite great filmmaking, though it comes close at times. It is, however, superb as a spy thriller. No GOLDFINGER, but just maybe a DR. NO.

The film begins not with the traditional gun-barrel POV shot leading to a pre-credits action extravaganza, but a black and white scene as a not-yet-007 James Bond (Daniel Craig) executes a fellow MI6 operative who's been selling state secrets to the enemy. Killing him, plus the man's contact, gives Bond the two kills that instantly bump him into the "double-oh" status, and leads us into the gun-barrel shot and a colorful opening credits sequence.

Pursuing and eventually killing the bombmaker mentioned in the first paragraph, Bond discovers he is a member of a network called simply ELLIPSIS, which, as he investigates further in the Bahamas, is a group funding terrorists the world over and helping them gain access to important places. One of the group's major players is Le Chifre (Mads Mikkelsen), a strange fellow who bleeds tears and gambles both with cards and stocks. After a deal with a group in Africa, he instructs his broker to sell all his stock in an airline company, but Bond, tracking an Ellipsis member to Miami Airport, foils the intended airplane bombing that would have made that a wise decision. Somehow as a result of this, Chifre now owes some of his "business partners" over a hundred million dollars in money that he's lost in trade. He sets up and announces a high stakes poker game in Montenegro's Casino Royale in order to win all the money he needs. Picking up on this, MI6 again dispatch Bond not to kill Le Chifre, but to enter the game and win, ensuring the man's demise at the hands of his debtors and also making sure the money doesn't fall into the wrong hands. So, Bond, alongside MI6 accountant Vesper Lynd (the luscious Eva Green), heads for the Casino and, for the first time in his career, must be an elegant, dapper gentleman. And there's the question of winning a game of cards.

As you may have guessed from the summary, if the prerelease publicity didn't already let on, this is a prequel, showing Bond's very first outing as 007 and his journey on the way to becoming the man we met in 1963. Of course, the chronology's been messed with so that it's happening now, but this approach gives us a strong character arc for a protagonist who so often seems to go without- it is as much about his journey towards becoming Bond as it is about defeating Le Chifre and the other forces of evil.

I'm happy to add my voice to the chorus praising Daniel Craig (whom you may recall from my review of SYLVIA) as the new Bond. If Pierce Brosnan worked as 007 because he seemed born to wear formal, Craig works because he seems so ill at ease in it. He is still, at heart, a thug, and actively works to put himself at an emotional distance from everything. In order to kill, he can't care too much about killing. But despite this jaded quality, Craig also brings wit and humor and flashes of warmth and vulnerability. He's still likable, and ladies and some men will be pleased to know that he is in excellent physical shape and displays as much a number of times. (Hetero men and non-hetero women will also appreciate Green's combination of gentle charm and profound curviness.) And, for all the self-discovery taking place, Craig's Bond is indisputably badass, killing with a steely savagery and resisting horrific pain with one of the best comebacks imaginable.

In many ways Craig's take on Bond reflects the feel of the film: quite brutal and nasty, often cynical, but not without a sense of humor. (There is a particularly great self-referential moment where Bond presents Vesper with her assigned alias, something vaguely resembling the corny innuendoes following in the Pussy Galore tradition.) We do get some of the glamour, the conspicuous consumption, the elegance of the Bond films in the Casino scenes- they're a bit of a trap, putting us at ease before the bloodshed begins anew, but the blend works surprisingly well. And there are some truly awesome large-scale action setpieces, including the wild and hair-raisingly convincing airport chase. (Blink and you'll miss Richard Branson going through a metal detector.)

The film's third act is very strangely relaxed. Without spoiling too much, we the audience know that what seems to be happening can't really last, and I was expecting a somewhat familiar twist. What I got slightly defied my expectations, and in retrospect things make sense, but as it unfolds it's still a bit slow. The final action sequence is too messy for its own good, and I had trouble following some of what happened (a rare occurrence in a Bond action setpiece.) So, overall it falls just short of the greatness it could have achieved. But it gets pretty far nonetheless.

CASINO ROYALE is radical in some ways, but overall it may just be the kind of natural nudging-back-on-track the series has periodically undergone. It's part of the tradition to, every so often, tinker with the conventions and confound at least a few audience expectations; this one goes a little bit farther, but produces some pretty spectacular results. The Bond series feels fresh and alive again, and I eagerly await the next installment. This film may not be up to the level of, say, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, but it just might be on a par with DR. NO.

From the novel by Ian Fleming
Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis
Directed by Martin Campbell

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Random Movie Report #15: Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

I missed CORPSE BRIDE in its theatrical run, the film coming out around the same time as SERENITY and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, both of which had priority. I'm starting to regret that, because this film has a remarkable quality all its own. A deceptively simple gothic fairy tale, the stop-motion romantic comedy blends love and death in some interesting ways and becomes surprisingly poignant.

Johnny Depp (now starring in two RMRs in a row) provides the voice for Victor, a timid young man belonging to a noveau riche family, who is on the brink of being married to Victoria (voice of Emily Watson), a charming young lady he meets the day of their rehearsal. They quickly fall in love, but Victor's still nervous and fumbles his way through the vows. After a disastrous rehearsal he flees into the woods and practices, slipping the ring on what looks like a branch. It turns out to be the bony finger of Emily the Corpse Bride (voice of Helena Bonham Carter), a once- okay, still somewhat beautiful woman murdered by her fiance while waiting to elope with him and waiting since then for someone to join her side. Taking Victor as her husband, she drags him down to the underworld, a macabre but pleasant place where folk in various states of decay drink, dance, and sing. Victor is desperate to get back topside and rejoin his true love, but in the meantime Emily is a charming woman and his old dog Scraps is still around as well. Meanwhile, up above, Victoria's aristocratic parents (who are broke and arranged the marriage to Victor to avoid the poorhouse) decide her intended is unstable, particularly after hearing he's been seen with a mysterious dark-haired woman outside of town. Good for them, the suave and glamorous Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) seems interested. Emily finds out about Victoria, Victoria finds out about Emily, wackiness ensues.

I'm a bit reluctant to call the film by its proper title of TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE, because it's hard to tell exactly how much of it is his. He had no hand in the screenplay, but co-created the characters with Carlos Grangel, and co-directed with Mike Johnson. It definitely has the feel of a Burton film, and some plot elements seem familiar from BEETLEJUICE and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It benefits from a tighter plot than most of his movies, though, and writers John August, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler deserve kudos for constructing a fairly tight narrative (the film barely tops 70 minutes.) But then, writing credits are notoriously dodgy thanks to the WGA's arbitration rules (one of the things that prevents the importance of the screenwriter from being fully recognized), and I won't draw any conclusions about who did what. It's probably for the best.

What really makes the film work is the gentleness with which it treats its central romantic triangle. Emily and Victoria both view each other as "the other woman," but neither of them is really bad, and neither woman's feelings can be overlooked, as Victor comes to find out. His heart belongs with Victoria (if only because he met her first, and she has a pulse), but Emily's tragic situation wins some sympathy from him and us as well. That both actresses are charming helps.

Depp plays a character completely without cool, which he has done before but not recently, so it's nice to know he can still hit the low notes. Watson and Carter, as pointed out, are also good, and the voice cast includes Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Christopher Lee (as a priest), Jane Horrocks, and Michael Gough. You know, one of these days I'm going to have to review a film where the acting REALLY sucks just to balance all the praise I keep doling out.

Though not quite a proper musical, the film has a few songs by Danny Elfman. The animation is excellent, with a vaguely Edward Gorey-esque look; the overworld is presented almost entirely in drab sepia tones, while the underworld is colorful and lively. It makes for an interesting contrast, and gets at one of the interesting themes of the movie. For what is on some level a kids' film, the movie is blunt about the inevitability of death, while presenting it as not such a bad thing. It happens in its time, and while we should live life to its fullest, we shouldn't live in fear of our own mortality. It's an interesting lesson, presented without an excess of sentiment. There's also a nice psychological angle, with Emily effectively being trapped in her illusion of what was supposed to happen, and a constant refrain in dialogue and song is that things rarely go according to plan. But, as we see, they have a way of working out, if we can move past expectations.

I do not want to give away the final moments of the film, but they are beautiful and poignant in a way I honestly did not expect, and elevate the entire affair. Though not as spectacular as NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, this film is just about as moving and every bit as well crafted. I'm glad I stumbled on it, and I dare say it may deserve more attention from a lot of corners.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In Theaters: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

[Image comes to you via]

It's difficult to review a film like BORAT. It is almost, but not quite, a documentary, blending the fictional adventures of its comically awkward protagonist with reactions from real-life persons who are now starting in droves to regret their signing release forms. The ethical debate aside (and I do not have nearly enough information to weigh in on that), BORAT is a very funny movie with just a bit of brain, and it becomes difficult to expound on this for a number of reasons. I don't want to give away the best jokes, I don't want to get over-intellectual, I don't want to sell the film short, and I DO want to have a decent-sized review at the end of it all. I really need to reconsider my policy of reviewing every film I see in a theater.

So, Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a big-name journalist in Kazakhstan (or rather a distorted caricature of Kazakhstan as any given post-Soviet republic), sent to America to learn more about its culture and hopefully bring back valuable lessons in how to be prosperous and dominant. Arriving in New York with his crew, his clothes and a chicken, he marvels at the sights and sounds of the city before fixating on what America really has to offer- Pamela Anderson, as seen as CJ Parker on BAYWATCH. Wanting to meet this vision of American beauty, Borat convinces his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to take their documentary on the road, all the way to Los Angeles, California. And so the film becomes Borat's heroic journey across America (mostly the southern regions) to explore US cultural traditions and maybe find true love.

It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that the whole point of this movie is the culture gap. Borat pits his made-up barbaric customs against the expectations of various people, testing their patience and tolerance and maybe bringing out a little of their personal feelings as well. (More than they intended to show at times, hence the lawsuits.) Bigotry comes up a lot; Borat, like many "Kazakhs" (remember, not the real ones) fosters a particularly antiquated and superstitious brand of anti-Semitism, one which casts Jews as supernatural creatures capable of changing shape, something which becomes significant when he and Azamat stay at a bed & breakfast run by a Jewish couple. His country executes homosexuals, but has no problem mingling with a Gay Pride parade and even inviting a few participants up to his room until he's informed what actually happened the next day by professional also-ran Alan Keyes. While Borat acts like a prejudiced, backwards ass (albeit a friendly one), he exposes prejudice in some of the people whom he interviews.

But is it funny? My answer would be yes. It's mostly "shock" humor, revolving around the sexual and scatological, but it's well-timed and well-executed shock humor. The editing is particularly sharp- we usually cut away before the awkwardness of any one gag moves from "funny" to "overbearing", and a sequence where a nude fight between Borat and Azamat spills out of their hotel room and into the halls (complete with an uncomfortable pause on the elevator) shows some ingenious comic timing, the hilarity overwhelming the unpleasant visual. And there are bits that are just plain silly-funny, like the Kazakhstan national anthem and Borat's purchase of a bear for protection.

The character Cohen has created (originally a correspondent on the comedian's DA ALI G SHOW), though somewhat predictable, has a certain charm; his prejudices come off as mostly-forgivable ignorance, the product of a backwards culture, while his fairy tale idealism turns his ramble into a touching quest. The satire wouldn't work if we didn't have a solid thread to follow or a reason to be interested in what happens next, and on second glance the film isn't as cynical as it appears. The film suggests that there are more people in America who harbor prejudice than we expect, but also suggests that people in America can be better than we expect as well, and in a couple of cases prejudice and generosity are found in the same person. In some ways this is the film that Paul Haggis' CRASH wanted to be.

BORAT is a cutting film, but also a heartwarming one, and if it appears to blunder into insight more than craft it, that may be the case, or it may just appear that way, and I'm not sure it matters either way. Good genuine satire is rare in mainstream cinema, and this film is worth seeing on that basis alone. The exact proportion of how much it makes you laugh against how much it makes you think will vary from person to person; however, it's sure to provoke in some way or another.

Story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, & Todd Phillips
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, & Dan Mazer
Directed by Larry Charles

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Random Movie Report #14: The Libertine

Okay, now that the election is past (mostly, as of this paragraph a couple of Senate seats are still in the air), I feel more at liberty to think about things like movies and comics and not who will control the actions of the nation. THE LIBERTINE isn't exactly apolitical fantasy, but it's an escape of sorts, to a world of no "family values" and precious little concern for moral purity of any kind. Not a pleasant world, but a refreshing change. A costume drama that avoids any hint of stuffiness, THE LIBERTINE is a nicely dry tonic, and a minor triumph for star Johnny Depp, who has had many.

Depp plays John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, courtier to King Charles II (John Malkovich.) Prone to boozing, wenching and writing smutty lampoons, Rochester (as he's usually called) has, at the start, come back from a brief exile to the country imposed after one of his works of verse pushed a few too many buttons. Not that anyone cares too much- after the deposition and execution of the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell, Britain has entered an age of art, culture, and decadence. Upper class gentlemen openly cheat with whatever whores are available, in theater boxes and in the streets. The theaters have been reopened, and female actors are now common. Rochester finds himself drawn, and not just carnally, to struggling actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), who is on the verge of being fired when he makes a bet with his friends that he can make her a star. Meanwhile, the King commissions Rochester to write a play to be performed at a royal function for the French ambassadors, while Britain seeks a loan from the often-rival nation. The resulting work, a pornographic satire of the court, doesn't go well, and Rochester flees to avoid punishment, beginning a slow decline.

Describing the plot is difficult because of the film's structure; it's mostly episodic, albeit with events from one episode bleeding into another and so on. Adapted from Stephen Jefferys from his play (originally staged with Malkovich as the star), the script has nothing stagy about it; we leap from location to location and scene to scene in such an obviously cinematic way that I was surprised to learn that it was an adaptation to start with. Shot in desaturated color (something I normally dislike), the film portrays a particularly grimy, grey late Restoration, a foggy haze (or hazy fog) drifting through the streets. Not only does it feel authentic, it reflects the sort of fatigued hedonism that dogs the protagonist. Director Laurence Dunmore used a handheld camera almost entirely throughout, and relied on lighting from candles in most scenes, again adding both realism and a since of intimacy that's necessary for us to connect with the growing unpleasantness on screen. And, I have nowhere else to put this, so I'll just say that this film may have the tiniest credits in the history of film. Seriously, I had to use the zoom function just to read the prologue.

Johnny Depp's performance does little to challenge the conventional wisdom that he's a consistently great actor. Rochester doesn't change much, to his ruin, but Depp captures a certain nuance in his strident antiheroism. The character begins things by addressing the audience, insisting up front, "you will not like me." However, it seems a desire for attention drives him constantly, which makes it all the more lethal for him when he is forced to hide. Depp manages to make Rochester a compelling and very charismatic figure, even as he lounges in a drunken, syphilitic stupor, putting great burdens on his wife (Rosamund Pike) and the housemistress (Clare Higgins of the HELLRAISER saga). Also amusing is COUPLING's Richard Coyle as Rochester's slovenly manservant Alcock (Jack Davenport also appears as Harris, the theater director.)

It may have been possible for the film to better develop any one of the portions of Rochester's life we see fly by; his relationship with Barry and the genesis of his briefly-performed magnum opus play out too briefly for my tastes. But the film is engaging and perversely fun throughout, and manages a bit of psychological complexity on top of it. Above all else it's worth seeing for Depp's performance and for its vivid portrait of a seldom-explored age. At the end, I was forced to admit that maybe I did like Rochester, just a little.


Friday, November 03, 2006

The Comics Page #7: Seven Soldiers #1

Grant Morrison's SEVEN SOLDIERS #1 officially came out last week, but didn't arrive in some areas until this Wednesday- I got it, but any excuse to procrastinate. The long-delayed capstone to the most exciting comics "event" of this year and the last (which isn't as high praise as it should be, given my general distaste for these things) is, as expected, dense, mind-boggling and full of weird ideas. It is also beautiful, sophisticated, and a brilliantly experimental approach to comics storytelling. It is unlikely to make any sense to anyone who hasn't followed the series, and even for those people, it's probably not going to be easily understood until maybe the third reading. This makes it accessible by Morrison-standards. And for anyone else that would be a substantial negative, but- well, read on. (Mild spoilers within.)

Okay, for those who weren't on board for this, the bulk of SEVEN SOLDIERS is comprised of seven four-part miniseries each revolving around a different character- all of them B-list-or-below on the scale of superhero popularity, most new incarnations of old concepts. Frankenstein (more accurately his monster, but I suppose only folks like me still care to make the distinction), Zatanna, the Manhattan Guardian, Shining Knight, Bulleteer, and Klarion the Witch Boy all become embroiled with the schemes of the Sheeda, a race of evil fairy creatures who can control humans and plan to consume the world. Also, they never meet. (Well, not all of them, never at once anyway.) Instead their stories subtly intertwine and destiny causes them to each play a role in combatting the Sheeda invasion. Look, the whole thing has been collected in three lovely trade paperbacks, with a fourth on the way, and it's great reading- Morrison likes to tell fast-paced stories full of weird ideas that don't quite make sense the first time, but are cool enough that it doesn't matter.

Anyway, here we are at the climax. The Sheeda arrive in their timeship in the middle of the city and prepare to do some serious Harrowing. The Manhattan Guardian does most of the fighting on the ground, protecting the innocent populace as shown in photographs and columns from the newspaper that gave him his name. Bulleteer, occupied with trying to save her nemesis Sally Sonic, careens into the middle of the fray. Zatanna tries to cast some good mojo for the team, while Klarion wanders the streets and decides to use a magical talisman to his advantage. Shining Knight confronts the Sheeda queen. Frankenstein has commandeered a Sheeda flagship and is contemplating destroying the entire race when fate intervenes. And Mister Miracle is hunting down Dark Side (aka Darkseid), who has bargained with the Sheeda to gain possession of what's left of Aurakles, first of the New Gods. Meanwhile, one of the soldiers trapped and seemingly killed in SEVEN SOLDIERS #0 turns out to play a key role.

Here's the thing about Grant Morrison. Well, one of the things. He's willing to write stories so dense and bizarre that they don't quite make sense the first time you read them. But one comes away thinking not "what a cheat, can't he tell a good story?" but "I'll have to read that again." And one of the reasons for this is that comics are one of the most easily re-readable media out there- especially in the American "short magazine" format. It's easy to flip back, let the eye wander, and find important information- even more so than in prose, as the pictures provide convenient memory anchors. So Grant Morrison knows you can and, if he doesn't lose you from the start, will look back and get the whole picture. Or at least he acts like he does.

This has two benefits. One, he can write in a compressed style that delivers more story-per-page than most American comics do; I understand that the "widescreen" style can produce some good effects and work for certain kinds of stories, but too often it seems to be used to make sure a story's long enough to be collected as a trade. More importantly, though, Morrison's approach means you get a story that reveals more with each reading. There are layers of plot and symbolism and theme that slowly unravel themselves as you go back and forth over the panels.

One criterion I've slowly been developing for evaluating a work of art or entertainment is how well it exploits the possibilities of its chosen medium. CITIZEN KANE is a great movie because it uses every cinematic trick the filmmakers could conceive of to tell its story, without obstructing that story; Ray Bradbury's stories resonate with a love of language and a fast, ephemeral, flash-of-lightning quality; Monty Python took a 25-minute block of television and filled it with whatever was funniest. It's not the only criterion, nor is it a necessary one per se (a movie can be play-like and still be good, for example), but it helps because it reminds the reader of the fundamental excitement of the activity itself. SEVEN SOLDIERS #1 is a very playful, experimental and above all comic book-y sort of comic book. There are a variety of layout styles and art styles used to convey each of the different worlds the soldiers come from and move in; the Guardian's adventures are presented as a newspaper (complete with a British-style crossword whose answers are apparently derived completely from the series; I'll have to get to that at some point), Aurakles' story is brought to us through a series of extremely Kirby-esque panels, and Shining Knight's Arthurian history is rendered in rich static drawings, almost like a tapestry. A key moment between Klarion and Misty, Zatanna's ward, is presented with both pictures and prose text, almost like a children's book. Zatanna breaks the fourth wall like she did in her eponymous SS series, in a very "do you believe in fairies?" moment. This is a story that could only work as a comic book, and it reminds you of just what the medium can do.

The highest of high praise must also be given to J. H. William III's art. Lush and complex, it encompasses a wide variety of styles, effectively recalling each of the seven miniseries leading up to this. It's eye-popping stuff, and the layouts are just as wildly intricate as the story. (I must also credit Dave Stewart on colors.)

This comic is incredibly smart and incredibly fun, a beautiful and wholly satisfying topper to a great project. Normally I despise the lax schedules of the comics industry, but I'll make an exception when something's this damn brilliant. I look forward to rereading the entire saga. I don't know what's going to come next for the Seven Soldiers and how they'll fit into the DC Universe as a whole, but they've already taken their place as legends.

Grade: A